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Breastfeeding & Obesity

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Protecting the Next Generation through Breastfeeding:

Exploring the Connection Between Breastfeeding and Obesity
By Peri Escarda

he body phobia of our culture negatively effects many areas of our lives, including not only how we treat ourselves, but how we treat our children. Despite the abundance of information about the benefits of breastfeeding, only 60% of American women breastfeed their children, and the vast majority of those mothers quit after just a few months. Women who choose to breastfeed do so in a society that often expects them to hide the act of breastfeeding--as if it were something dirty. Mothers who choose to nurse toddlers often feel pressure to give up this practice--again as if there were something sexually inappropriate about nursing a young child.

A study that was published in the British Medical Journal in July of 1999, has shown that babies who are fed breast milk exclusively are less likely to be obese children. So reducing the risk of childhood obesity can now be added to the long list of benefits to breastfeeding. Of course, we at The Body Objective believe that any child's body is amazing and beautiful at any size, and that any weight control program should be motivated by the achievement of fitness, not the achievement of a socially acceptable size. But this study is important because it helps to explain why some children carry more fat than others, and gives parents information on how to help their child grow into the healthiest body possible.

The study was conducted in Bavaria and tracked 9,357 children in the public school system. The children's parents were given questionnaires that asked about their nursing history, current eating and exercise habits, socioeconomic class, and birth weight. Through these questionnaires, the researchers were able to see that the obesity of the children was attributable to their nursing history and not any of the other factors mentioned. In fact, the researchers found that the overall rate of obesity among breast-fed children was half that of bottle-fed children. The risk for obesity declined with increased duration of breastfeeding, and those children who were breastfed beyond a year had a 72 percent lower risk of obesity. Even those children who had breastfed for just the first one or two months were 10% less likely to be obese at age five or six.

Children were considered overweight if their body mass index--which takes into account the person's height--was in the top 10% of children their age and sex. The children were considered obese if they were in the top three percent. Unfortunately, the researchers did not take into account hereditary factors which probably are at least partially responsible for some of the cases, but certainly their overall results point to a connection between bottle-feeding and obesity.

But is this connection due to nutrients in the breastmilk, or is it due to the behavioral consequences of breastfeeding? "Bottle-fed infants had higher concentrations of insulin in their blood, which would be expected to aid in fat deposition. Human milk contains fats and proteins significantly different from those available in artificial infant milk. Human milk contains the correct amount of protein a baby needs. The proteins in human milk are also easier to metabolize than the large amount found in artificial infant milk and therefore are not stored to later become fat, thereby reducing the risk of obesity," states La Leche League on their informational web site.

One must also consider that a bottle provides a steady, homogenized flow of formula, while the mother's breast naturally regulates how much milk and what type of milk the baby ingests. At the beginning of the feeding, the baby receives a strong flow of watery foremilk. As the baby continues to nurse, the milk flow slows down but becomes richer in fat. Breastmilk contains over 400 nutrients, and scientists are far from fully understanding how these nutrients interact with the body. We know that nursing stimulates the areas of the brain that are related to hunger and satisfaction. Perhaps it may someday be shown that bottle-fed babies are not receiving proper stimulation of the appetite centers of the brain and as a result, are overfeeding.

The higher incidences of obesity in bottle-fed children may also be connected to the behaviors of the parents. After all, our relationship with food begins in infancy. Unfortunately, western society has often pushed the idea of "controlled feeding schedules:" feeding the baby at prescribed intervals instead of trusting the baby's natural appetite. Many mothers are counseled to let their babies "cry it out" at night, as if children were born with some sort of natural agenda of manipulation. It is much more likely that these babies are simply hungry and in need of human warmth. Breastfeeding and the family bed encourages mothers to feed their babies on demand, and encourages the baby to create a positive, trusting relationship with food. Also, when a parent feeds a baby with a bottle, the parent might focus more on emptying the bottle, than on the child's natural hunger and satisfaction cues.

Western culture's fear of breasts also influences the way in which we wean our children. Breasts have been so sexualized in our society that many people feel that there is something sexually inappropriate about nursing a toddler. Abrupt weaning can be very traumatic for both mother and child, while gradual weaning allows both baby and mother to adjust. La Leche League offers this definition of natural weaning: "Natural weaning incorporates the natural limit-setting that babies need as they grow into toddlers. A mother who is practicing natural weaning views weaning as a developmental skill and lovingly guides her child as he learns the skills that replace nursing. This guidance may involve asking the child to wait to nurse or providing food or stimulating activity in place of nursing. It involves respecting the mother's feelings and preferences about breastfeeding while also taking into account the needs of the child."

Natural weaning allows the child to outgrow nursing at his or her own developmental pace, and again, encourages the child to develop a positive, trusting relationship with food.

Over the last few weeks, I have spent a great deal of time looking at breastfeeding research. I find it odd that we have become so separated from our natural instincts that scientists must now "prove" the value of breastfeeding through various different studies. It is important to note that parents who choose to bottle-feed their children are not doing so out of neglectful parenting skills, and I am in no way suggesting that bottle-fed children are any less loved than breastfed children. In this article, I am simply trying to spread the word about the benefits of breastfeeding so that parents can truly make an informed choice.

Because breasts have been shrouded in so much mystery and taboo, we as a society have not made it easy to successfully breastfeed children. It is time for our society to begin to normalize breasts and encourage all aspects of breastfeeding. In this way, we can help our children create physically healthy bodies and emotionally healthy relationships with food.

Thank you Peri, for your contribution to our site.

Peri is a co-creator of a website that is dedicated to enabling women to accept themselves as they are. Women (and men) are beautiful creatures. They should not only be accepted as they are by everyone else, but they should learn to accept themselves as they are, too.

If you are interested in this concept, and are not offended by others' nudity, check out BodyObjective.com

Bodyobjective.com is closed at the present time. We
hope that they work through whatever problems that are keeping them
"down". They provide a much-needed service to people of all sizes and
shapes.